Mandela the Christian

2016-10-30 12:34

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The Spiritual Mandela: Faith and Religion in the Life of South Africa’s Great Statesman by Dennis Cruywagen

Zebra Press

224 pages


Mandela would go on to forge connections with various members of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), even outside of strictly religious settings. In October 1996, while he was taking a walk in Houghton, he saw DRC minister Nelis Janse van Rensburg, and asked a policeman to bring the dominee to speak to him. Janse van Rensburg, whose congregation was based in the Northern Cape town of Postmasburg, was in Johannesburg to visit a neurologist with his wife, Aletta, and their two-year-old son, Nico, who was mentally handicapped. When Nico became restless in the doctor’s consulting rooms, his father decided to take a break and went to buy a cold drink, which he drank in his car. When a policeman came up to him and told him that the president wanted to see him, Janse van Rensburg asked incredulously: ‘The president? Which president?’ 

He and the president of South Africa had a long conversation. Mandela spoke of his sadness about the murder of DRC professor Johan Heyns, who had been assassinated in his home in Pretoria the previous year. He also spoke of his membership of the Methodist Church and told Janse van Rensburg: ‘Everything I know about ethics, I learned from the Methodists.’ Even so, he said he could not publicly declare his affiliation with the church because he was president of South Africa, and he did not want to give the impression that he was favouring one religious group over another. Despite this, he said he sought to live out his beliefs both in private and in the way he portrayed himself to the world. As in his interactions with the Meirings, it seems that Mandela, when at ease, could open up about his beliefs to people outside of the media and government – people who wanted nothing more than to speak to him for a few moments.

Before they said goodbye, Mandela put his arm around Janse van Rensburg’s shoulder and suggested that they come to an agreement. ‘He told me he was a politician and wanted to make a deal with me: he would pray for Nico if I prayed for an important meeting he was to have the following day.’ Janse van Rensburg, who was named moderator, or head, of the DRC in 2015, agreed.

And yet, in spite of the connections he made in the DRC, and his acknowledgement of the church as a powerful religious institution, Mandela had to continually persuade church leaders, both during his presidency and afterwards, that his government needed and wanted the church’s backing to obtain the trust of the Afrikaans community. The DRC leaders were unremitting in their curiosity about his religious beliefs and his views on Christianity, partly because suspicions that he was a communist still prevailed. The church might have felt entitled in their relentless interrogations of Mandela’s personal beliefs, but in doing so, they helped to prove just how successful Mandela had been in creating the kind of conversational environment that encouraged debate among individuals and organisations of all types. It is debatable whether DRC leaders would have been brave enough to ask apartheid dignitaries the kinds of questions that they asked during their interrogations of Mandela, a head of state. But after years of having to defend himself against all sorts of accusations about his viewpoints, Mandela was more than prepared for the onslaught. What he would end up proving, in fact, was that he was not the person they thought he was.

Professor Pieter Potgieter, DRC moderator from 1990 to 1994, remembers one such grilling during a lunch with Mandela in Pretoria in 1993. The political violence that marred the transition to democracy had motivated Mandela and the executive of the DRC to meet on several occasions to discuss threats of violent resistance that existed among far-right Afrikaners and within certain ranks of the ANC. While these meetings ‘took place in a good spirit and made a constructive contribution to peace in the country’ – an analysis based on the observations of Dr Fritz Gaum of the DRC, who attended these meetings – there were clearly still church representatives who questioned Mandela’s authority in appealing to churches for help, or discussing religious principles with them, if he was not, as they believed, a Christian. During their lunch, Potgieter confronted Mandela on this issue, asking him why he so often spoke in public about God and God’s will, but never admitted to being a Christian. In response, Mandela confessed: ‘I believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ This reply, directed to a leader of the DRC, was proof of his Christian faith.

Read more on:    nelson mandela

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